Sunday, December 16, 2007

Isn't the army supposed to be "moral" and "upstanding" (aside from, you know, killing people)

The army can't let gays in its ranks because it can't condone immorality, according to General Peter Pace.

But a vast epidemic of cheaters? Perfectly acceptable.

For eight years, the Army has known that its largest online testing program - which verifies that soldiers have learned certain military skills and helps them amass promotion points - has been the subject of widespread cheating.

In 1999, testing officials first noticed that soldiers were turning in many tests over a short period, something that would have been almost impossible without having obtained the answers ahead of time. A survey by the testing office showed that 5 percent of the exams were probably the subject of cheating. At the time, soldiers were filing roughly 200,000 exams per year.

But it wasn't until June of this year, when an Army computer contractor complained about a website providing free copies of completed exams, that the Army acknowledged that it had a problem.

A five-month Globe investigation has since found that by then, hundreds of thousands of packages of completed exams had been downloaded by soldiers over many years.

But the Army never prosecuted anyone for cheating - which is a violation of three sections of the military code of justice.


"As long as the Army, which has been well aware of this rampant problem for years, continues for one more day to use these exam results to award more money to soldiers [through promotions] the Army is promoting fraud," said Lisa Conklin, a former enlisted soldier in Germany. She was one of dozens of soldiers and former soldiers who contacted the Globe expressing concern about cheating after stories appeared last summer.

Conklin said that cheating was "almost universal" in her unit, and that she was told it was none of her business when she tried to report it.


During the eight years of Army inaction, the cheating problem grew steadily. The Globe investigation found that the cheating epidemic has involved tens of thousands of soldiers. Computer records from one site, called ShamSchool, created by the soldier who was the subject of news reports in July, show more than 200,000 downloads of packages containing the answers to multiple exams in just the 11 months from September 2006 to this past August. They included:

42,839 downloads of a package of engineering tests, covering subjects including explosives and demolitions, detecting mines, building trenches, and other forms of combat engineering;

19,570 downloads of a package of what the Army calls "interschool" exams, covering attack helicopter formations, chemical detection and contamination, and infantry field hygiene;

18,891 downloads of air defense artillery examinations; and

13,282 downloads of the course package for the Quartermaster Corps.


Under the military justice system, alleged criminal violations are investigated by the unit of the soldier who is implicated. So whenever testing officials heard about evidence of cheating, they referred it to the soldiers' units, said Connie Wardell, the civilian official who has overseen the testing program since 2005.

The individual units, however, balked at taking action. Interviews with dozens of soldiers - some of whom did not want their full names disclosed for fear of retribution - suggest that cheating was tolerated by commanders, who didn't want to engage in time-consuming and unpopular investigations.

In fact, the testing office acknowledged, there is no evidence that any violators were formally punished by the different units between 1999 and this fall.

"As much as we ask what happened [to the suspected soldier], we often never hear anything back," said Marilyn Hicok, a testing official at Fort Eustis.

Why does all this matter? Well, these tests are used to accumulate points that help one get promoted--and recently, the tests are counting for more and more:
The Army sergeant is the first leader that an Army private encounters in boot camp. Sergeants train soldiers to operate weapons, build fortifications, and go into battle. Sergeants also handle desk jobs, from dispensing Army paychecks to keeping the troops armed, fed, and clothed.

The Army maintains an elaborate process for selecting its sergeants, what it calls a "values-based, merit promotion" system.

Soldiers can gain promotion points for competence, military bearing, leadership, training, and responsibility and accountability, based on the assessments of the soldiers' commanders and a separate promotion board. Candidates also can get points for weapons proficiency, awards and decorations, and civilian education.

But soldiers can also gain up to 200 points from the correspondence courses. And lately, those 200 points, obtained through online exams, can count for more than half the points needed to become a sergeant.

Each month, the Army Human Resources Command forecasts the number of vacancies and adjusts the number of points required for promotion.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - with a near-constant demand for sergeants - have driven down the point totals necessary for promotion in certain specialties.

For example, only 386 points were required for a specialist to be promoted to an infantry sergeant in October, down from 424 in September, records show. The numbers of points to qualify for the position of staff sergeant in a Patriot missile unit dropped from 662 in September to 502 in October, according to Army data.

In addition, the required points for sergeants in the signal corps, tank units, and intelligence branch have all been lowered dramatically because of personnel shortages.

Soldiers have been quick to note that the points gained from online tests take on greater importance as the total points needed for promotion decline.

Which means that we're getting people promoted based on knowledge that they don't have, that they in fact faked having. And in the army, not knowing something that you're supposed to could get you--and the people around you--killed.
The report added: "In the Army, the consequences of training compromise can be severe. For example, soldiers considered qualified to perform a task may not be, increasing the chances of 'human error' during an operation."

But all that's okay, apparently. Sure, it's immoral to cheat, but it's not gay sex, so no-one cares. And they're promoting people who don't have the qualifications to fulfill their duties while kicking out well-qualified soldiers, but those latter are gay so they hardly count.


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